NPR Story
3:35 pm
Wed October 16, 2013

Picking The Gridiron Contenders

Originally published on Wed October 16, 2013 3:39 pm

Next season, there will be a new playoff system for big time college football.

A committee, which includes former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, will select the four teams that will play in the semifinals ahead of the championship game.

That system will replace the Bowl Championship Series which has, until now, determined which college teams play for the national championship.

John Bacon, a journalist who has written about college football, tells Here & Nows Meghna Chakrabarti the new system is sort of like the old Who song that goes “new boss, same as the old boss.”

Guest

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Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

Well, now, from Washington to big-time college football, which is seeing some fairly big changes to its playoff system. The new college football playoff selection committee will pick the squads that will play in a new four-team playoff for the national championship next season.

This week, we're learning who's on that committee. A bunch of interesting names, including Archie Manning, father of pro quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning. Also on the committee, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. John Bacon is here to explain. He's author of "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football." He joins us from a Michigan Radio. John, welcome back to HERE AND NOW.

JOHN BACON: Thank you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So first of all, let me ask you, I remember back in the day reading an article about Condoleezza Rice and that she would watch football in the mornings while running on the treadmill and that she is a huge football fan. But why does that make her qualified enough member for this new committee?

BACON: A fair question, of course. But, honestly, some of the current ADs have not played football or ever coached football. So these days, I think it's more about professionalism than it is about your actual background. That said, of course, Pat Dye, the Auburn coach who coached Bo Jackson famously, he said that to understand football, you got to play with your hand in the dirt. So as you might imagine, some of the good old boys are against her, but other guys, like Steve Spurrier, who'd actually won national titles said, she's a Stanford graduate, and she plays a little golf. Why not?

(LAUGHTER)

BACON: And that seems to be the consensus. You got to figure also, if you can handle Ahmadinejad, you are going to handle these egos. But that's not a guarantee.

CHAKRABARTI: I know. I was going to say because, you know, football is a serious business. But who else is part of this group?

BACON: You've got four athletic directors from Clemson, West Virginia, Wisconsin and USC. You got a bevy of former players, coaches, commissioners and even a former sports reporter, Steve Wieberg, late of the USA Today. So you'd think that if you can handle a sports reporter, you can probably handle a woman on the committee.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, before we talk about what this committee is actually going to do, let's take a step back and talk about how college football championships were picked up until now because to the uninitiated - and I'm going to include myself in this - it always seems like the same teams, like Alabama win anyway.

BACON: To we Michigan fans, it feels the same way, trust me.

(LAUGHTER)

BACON: We share your pain on that one. In every other sport you have a playoff, but not in college football for over a century, since 1869, when the first game was played. Until 1998, they picked it by polls basically. So it was very common to have two or even more than that, national champions, because they did not necessarily even play each other during the season. So that was very common.

In fact, the last year, in '97, Michigan split with Nebraska based on the AP poll versus the coaches' poll. So that's how that often broke down. But in '98, they went to the BCS, the Bowl Championship Series, which is where they picked two teams, the top two teams, to make them play each other in the final game.

And that always resulted in one national title at least, one national champion. So that improved in that sense. But now, they're going to go to four teams, so they're going to have a final four playoff in January. And that will be the new system.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So hang on. Let me - I'm a little confused here, so let me just back up a second.

BACON: Sure. And you should be confused.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAKRABARTI: So they're going to pick four teams now. But I guess I'm still not fully clear on how the new system differs from the old one, except that they have this new committee.

(LAUGHTER)

BACON: Meghna, well done. They do not want you think that, but that's exactly the same situation. The old complaint was that they picked two teams based on polls, strength of schedule, computerized rankings. And now, they're going to have a selection committee pick four teams based on polls, strength of schedule and computerized rankings.

So how that solves a problem, I've got no idea. What it does do, instead of the third-place team complaining that they did not get a chance at the title, now, you have a fifth-place team making the same complaint. So, voila, problem solved. What it is going to mean is a whole lot more money for college football, $470 million for the TV rights alone, this year alone. That's big money.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. OK. So I - make the argument, if you can, about why some people might think this is a better system.

BACON: Their argument is going to be that by having four teams instead of two teams, it's closer to a real NFL-style playoff and therefore merit is rewarded, therefore if you're in the top four, you got a shot, et cetera. I'm going to argue the opposite. I'm a dinosaur. I'm against the whole thing. Just a few years ago, teams would play 11 games and only 11 teams got to play in bowl games. Now, all teams play 12 games. There are 35 bowls, so 70 teams play in bowl games.

We've also got conference title games now. You throw in two games on top of that for this playoff, a college team now can play up to 15 games, which is, obviously, about 50 percent more than most teams would in the old days. The coaches get bonuses for getting the bowls. They get bonuses for winning national titles. Les Miles, a few years ago against Alabama, would have received $5 million, doubling his paycheck for one game against Alabama if he won. And as you know, he lost.

The players, of course, receive nothing but extra practices. So all these games are tacked on - the concussions, the knee injuries, you name it - on these amateur athletes while the moneymakers make more money. So I do not see this as a step forward.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So before I ask this next question, college football fans across the nation, I ask your forgiveness in advance. But here goes.

BACON: I'm listening.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAKRABARTI: Why can't they just have a regular playoff system? I mean, if they can do it in college basketball, what's so hard about brackets?

BACON: And you've got a mini bracket now. You've got a final four, so it's going in that direction. And trust me, once you've got four teams, they're going to add another game. You'll have eight teams before too long, I guarantee you this. But the main reason is what I described - and this is the hypocrisy of the whole thing - on the one hand, they're saying it's too much. We can't go more. And the other hand, they're saying, we've already got 15 games. Let's milk it. So the bottom line is, too many games, these guys need to be back in school, and there's the injury factor. But they're already breaking that rule, anyway.

CHAKRABARTI: John Bacon's latest book is "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football." John, thanks so much.

BACON: Meghna, thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: By the way, new system or not, John still thinks Alabama's going to win. So let us know what you think about this new playoff system. Give us a shout out at hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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